“If you tell a 30-something male that he’s Jesus Christ, he’s inclined to believe you.” – Scott Galloway, marketing professor at N.Y.U.
An attractive, tall man stands in front of the camera, confident and charming in his demeanor yet fumbling over his words as he attempts to explain a “fundamental shift” in the real estate business.
Quite suddenly, he lifts his leg and passes gas, which comes across as endearing and mildly funny until time passes with an unfinished monologue underscored by news anchors discussing the financial collapse of his company.
It’s a tonally mixed, but exactly on point introduction to Adam Neumann, then co-founder and CEO of a tech/real estate startup that ballooned to massive size in ten years only to fall by the wayside in weeks.
Neumann – and to a certain extent, his company – are the focus of Academy Award nominated director Jed Rothstein’s latest documentary WeWork: or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, which dropped on Hulu earlier this month after an impressive debut at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival.
WeWork combines the ruthless business ambition of Facebook critique The Social Network and last year’s Fyre Festival documentaries with cult-centric docudramas like The Vow.
From the outset, Rothstein allows audiences into the world of WeWork through founder Neumann’s captivating, almost Svengali-like personality boosting big dreams of a connected world through co-habitated work spaces and integrated, communal living.
Rothstein focuses less on the company itself, which developed real estate in New York City as open plan office buildings for startup businesses and freelancers. Instead, WeWork is almost entirely about the culture, the man behind its vision and how greed and relentless expansion brought the whole thing tumbling down.
Neumann declined to be interviewed for the documentary, but through a plethora of archival footage, his magnetic presence reverberates across each and every moment.
There’s something striking about the way films like WeWork come together, often with a massive backlog of behind-the-scenes footage originally commissioned by the subject themselves. It’s clear at times that Neumann is thinking of a grandiose, flattering documentary about his company as he pontificates to camera about his communal ideals.
Rothstein infuses millennial pop culture sentimentality into his feature that give WeWork a hip style very much in keeping with the free-spirited tone Neumann aspired to for his company.
The film is very detail oriented about technical business lingo and numbers that may be confusing to those outside corporate structures. Rothstein combats this through the use of computer graphics that simplify the data and present it in a visually digestible way.
A thirty second summary of WeWork’s philosophy on “EBITDA” or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization takes a complex business evaluation metric and uses quick, flashy graphs to explain to lay viewers exactly how the company was hoodwinking investors.
The biggest gap within the WeWork documentary is the void of discussion about co-founder Miguel McKelvey, who remains a part of the company and is shown rarely and mentioned even less. It’s astounding – and almost inconceivable – for a player to have such a significant impact on the creation and operation of a multi-billion dollar business and not become a focus of the documentary.
In this regard, it’s as WeWork isn’t about the company at all, but more the singularity of Neumann as a mythical figure whose rise and fall glorifies corporate CEOs undeserving of golden parachutes.
An interviewee late in the documentary says that “when you focus the story on Adam, you miss how many people worked really hard to bring this impossible vision to life.” That’s true both of the company itself and of Rothstein’s documentary, which uses former WeWork employees to carry the bulk of the interviews but mostly in the context of talking about Neumann and his impact on the company and their lives rather than the group as a whole.
WeWork will also set the stage for an upcoming miniseries from Apple on the fall of the company with Oscar winners Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway set to star as Neumann and his wife, Rebecca. A second miniseries and additional feature films are also slated according to reports from major industry outlets.
An early contender for one of the year’s best documentaries, WeWork is a must see experience sure to captivate and likely anger viewers.